One recent Sunday my father-in-law took me to the Quaker house in the village of Ettington, Warwickshire, seven miles from their home. Built between 1681 and 1684 as one of the first Friends’ meeting houses in England, it’s a stone cottage comprising one well-proportioned room, its rough plaster walls hung with woven rush matting (a feature of 17th century houses, both for warmth and for protection from the rough render on the walls). A bench runs round the room, and there are a few chairs in the middle. About a dozen people came to the weekly hour of silence.
The atmosphere had a sense of ease, of naturalness. And at the same time, a powerful sense of “presence”. “Presence” sounds like it implies presence “of something,” but I couldn’t identify anything beyond the very sense of presence itself. It was a rich, deep, quiet atmosphere, something a meditator could get their teeth into (so to speak).
Twice someone stood up to speak briefly, one of whom read a short passage from a book. These short speeches, no longer than sixty seconds each, were low-key, unassuming, modest. People sat any way they liked, leaning back, legs crossed, whatever. There was some quiet shifting of position.
Personally I think the body posture offered by the Zen way is a significant help in silent sitting. But the sense of informality and ease in the room was deep and supportive. It reminded me of our lineage’s main Japanese zendo, where there is also a sense of naturalness. It affirmed a couple of points for me:
- It may be unhelpful to seek to imitate foreign styles, behaviors, forms of practice too closely. It can be misleading, and come across without the naturalness it may have in the native land. This in turn can lead to unnecessary tension and lack of ease in the zendo. There are enough inward sources of unease and tension that each meditator may already be needing to allow to release – and added tension from outside is unlikely to help.
- The natural path of evolution of the Dharma in the west is surely going to involve pre-existing western forms for silence and stillness, and “wisdom”. Christian contemplation in different guises, Quaker, Orthodox, Catholic. The tenets of classical Greek philosophy, which grew out of their stillness practices, as well as early Greek contact with ancient Indian philosophy and practices (some scholars believe). The wisdom contained in our arts and literature. And so on.
It’s great that we are absorbing Asian contemplative practices, with their great subtlety and accumulated wisdom. But the long-range view will surely be that over time the West gets comfortable enough in them to trust its own forms and styles.